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Face of Defense: Last Iraq Tour Was One Too Many for Combat-Tested Marine

Samantha L. Quigley, American Forces Press Service

Marine Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Hedgcorth participates in the 33rd Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., Oct. 26, 2008. He completed the 26.2 miles on a hand cycle as part of a fundraising effort for other wounded servicemembers. Courtesy photo by Nicole Benitez

Marine Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris Hedgcorth served six combat tours and escaped injury each time. But his seventh tour wasn’t so lucky for him.

On Sept. 17, 2004, Hedgcorth was serving his second tour in Iraq with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The unit was stationed at Forward Operating Base Kalsu, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, when insurgents started firing rockets at the camp. Shrapnel from the first rocket severed Hedgcorth’s patellar tendon, which holds the kneecap in place.

“There was a second rocket that kind of bounced me off of some of the … barriers,” he said. “The next thing I remember is hearing a third rocket and crawling on my arms back into the tent, because for some reason I thought I’d be safer inside the tent, and it was closer than the bunker.”

Once the rockets stopped, one of Hedgcorth’s staff noncommissioned officers found him and asked about his injuries. He responded that he was “routine” and that she should find everyone else first.

He stuck to his story when they came checking on him a second time. “Turns out, I was the only one wounded,” he said.

That was a Friday night. By the next Thursday, Hedgcorth had been evacuated to Camp Lejeune, N.C., via Baghdad, Balad, and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

“So, I moved faster than the mail,” he chuckled. “I wasn’t a model patient, so they let me go home before my next surgery on Friday. I’m an old guy, and I don’t take well to instruction.”

More surgeries repaired the tendon, but the kneecap had been placed too low. “I’m not a doctor, but I do know how a hinge works,” Hedgcorth said. “If that hinge pin’s not in the right spot, [it won’t open right.]” Another surgery in February re-centered his kneecap and moved it up as high as possible.

Hedgcorth joined the Marine Corps 25 years ago because “it was the best,” he said.

“It seemed like an easy choice after the Beirut bombing,” he said quietly. “I had three friends of mine on that wall.” A terrorist bomb killed 241 Marines and Navy corpsmen in a barracks in the Lebanese capital on Oct, 23, 1983.

Hedgcorth’s knee injury marked the first time in his career that he’d been injured, and he freely admits that he’d pushed his luck until it happened. He served in Panama, Desert Storm, Somalia, two tours in the Balkans, and two tours in Iraq, and the Purple Heart he received for his injury came with some mixed feelings.

“At first, it was the ‘Enemy Marksmanship Award,’” he said. “It’s not something I walk around wearing on my sleeve, [but] it is something I can use to help others.”

That’s what the chief warrant officer decided to do.

He’d been working at the Marine Corps’ logistics operations school at Camp Johnson, N.C., and decided that wasn’t for him. Retirement seemed the next logical step until a colonel he’d worked with asked him to work with the Wounded Warrior Battalion he was standing up.

That was about three years ago, and he’s been there ever since.

He serves as the battalion’s operations officer, tracking more than 600 patients and overseeing patient-outreach teams, among other tasks.

“By the time [the wounded] get to me here at the battalion proper, they’re going to go one of two ways. They’re going to get out and move on into civilian life, or they’re going try to return … to duty,” he said. “We don’t try to push them either way. We just try to make sure they’re prepared [for] whichever way they’re going to go.”

Hedgcorth still is on active duty, still is a patient, and is assigned to the Wounded Warrior Battalion himself.

“I’m finishing my [medical] boards, and should be medically retired by the end of the year,” he said. “Some pretty popular generals have asked me to come back [in retire/retain status], which means I’m … not blocking promotions or anything.”

That would keep him in his job for another year or two, he added.

Hedgcorth said the devotion he displays toward his Marines and others, as well as to his job, comes from someplace other than simple obligation.

“It’s more of a calling than anything else to work in this job,” he said.

Hedgcorth and a friend recently completed the 33rd Marine Corps Marathon as part of a fundraising effort in support of wounded servicemembers. Maneuvering hand cycles through the 26.2 miles, he said, they weren’t out to win it, but rather just to support the “next wounded guy.”

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